What is Cancer and Why Do We Get It?

Cancer seems to be such a dreaded disease that we don't even like to hear the word. So we usually don't think about it and hope it doesn't happen to us. Like anything, though, the more we understand about cancer, the less scary it becomes – and the more we realise how much we can actually do to lower the risk and possibly even cure it. So let's take a simple look at what cancer is, what we think can cause it, and the easy things we can do in our lives to avoid getting it.

What is cancer?

Cancer is really just a change in the normal healthy cells in our bodies that makes them grow differently, or out of control or in the wrong place. Of course there are many different types of cancer, but this is basically what happens. It might be a mole that changes colour, or a strange lump that appears – this is simply the result of something having gone wrong with our usually healthy tissue.

This can happen anywhere in our bodies, and it can happen to any of us, whether we are male or female, young or old, rich or poor. That's partly why cancer is so frightening – it seems to strike randomly. However, as you'll see when you read on, the occurrence is not as random as we think and we can do many things to reduce our risk of getting it. Medical scientists are also constantly making breakthroughs in the ways that we treat cancer, and more people are recovering from it than ever before.

How does cancer start?

Our body is constantly refreshing itself. Old cells die and we grow new ones to replace them. That's why our skin stays healthy – old skin cells fall off revealing a freshly grown layer. Unfortunately, sometimes, for reasons we still don't fully understand, changes (mutations) take place in the DNA of cells. In other words, something goes wrong with the 'instructions' that our cells use to replace themselves, and abnormal cells are produced. A cell that should have been healthy emerges with a built-in fault: it might grow too fast, be the wrong type of cell for that part of the body, or grow somewhere else where it isn't supposed to appear. These are what we call cancerous cells.

How do cancer tumours grow?

This problem gets worse when these cells move to other parts of the body. This is why cancer spreads. The medical term for this is "metastasis", but all it really means is that the cancer cells travel through our bloodstream or lymph system, and then form new abnormal growths elsewhere. This is how breast cancer can spread to our lungs or other organs, and create tumours in other areas of our body.

When cancerous cells multiply they can form clusters of cells which form tumours. Some tumours eventually become malignant which means they can seriously damage your health. If not successfully treated, malignant tumours are likely to cause death.

Doctors divide cancer growth into different stages, depending on how serious it is and how much it has spread or not. Stages 1 and 2 usually mean that the cancer has been found quite early, and hasn't started to spread. Stages 3 and 4 mean that the cancer has started to spread and has now appeared in other places too.

What causes cancer?

While doctors don't yet fully understand what causes cancer in our bodies, the good news is that they are learning more every day, and have already identified things that can make a difference in whether we get it or not. These are known as 'risk factors'.

Naturally, one of the 'causes' of cancer is our genes. The potential to develop cancer can be passed on from one generation to another, as you can inherit certain genes from your parents - which is why you are more likely to get breast cancer if your mother had it.

By now we also know about some of the big threats that we should avoid to help us reduce our risk of getting cancer, like smoking, alcohol consumption, going out in harsh sunlight without sunscreen, and being exposed to cancer causing (carcinogenic) chemicals. There are also lots of less obvious things that can cause cancer.

Luckily we can all learn the right changes we can make to our lives to minimise our risk of getting cancer in the future. Also, fortunately, cancer is not infectious and cannot be passed on from one person to another. In other words, you can’t ‘catch’ cancer from someone else who already has it. (Although, as mentioned earlier, you can inherit genes from your parents that may make you more susceptible to the disease.)

How can we lower our cancer risk?

While cancer has now become a preventable disease in many ways, we still don't have control over the genetic aspect (only about 5-10% of cancers are genetic), so to a certain extent we are at the mercy of our genes. Cancer can appear no matter how healthily we live, unfortunately. That said, there are many things we can do to reduce our risk from other cancer risks, and this may even stop cancer genes from becoming active.

1. Don't smoke or use tobacco products

Smoke damages our cells and can turn healthy ones cancerous. Regular smoking of cigarettes, cigars or pipes places us at high risk. You should also avoid other tobacco products, like hookah pipes and snuff, as the tobacco itself contains chemicals that can cause cancer. Even smoked and processed meats contain contaminants that could cause cancer at some time in the future, if consumed excessively.

2. Be very careful of the sun

Skin cancers can be caused by exposure to sunlight. As our climate has changed due to global warming, the ozone layer in the atmosphere that protects us from harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun has become too thin. This means that if we expose ourselves too much to direct sunlight it’s much easier to get skin cancer than in the past. We should always protect exposed areas of our bodies with a sunscreen that has an SPF value of at least 20 UV protection factor whenever we go out into direct sunlight. Making this a part of our daily lives can substantially lower the risk of skin cancer. Sunscreen must be applied at least 20 minutes prior to going out into the sun. It also needs to be re-applied at least every 2 hours and more often when perspiring or swimming.

3. Live a healthy lifestyle

Cancer is also linked to unhealthy ways of living that weaken our defences against it, or directly cause it. We should try to avoid being overweight and eating too much sugar, and we should avoid drinking alcohol (there is no safe level of alcohol consumption). Keeping ourselves physically fit through regular exercise is also very beneficial.

4. Look after you mind

These days we understand that our minds have a significant effect on our bodies and our health, and can cause all kinds of illnesses. For example, too much stress can lead to immune system failure, which makes us sick. So it’s very important to do some sort of activity that keeps the mind calm and healthy, like yoga or meditation or some other sort of spiritual activity.

5. Eat sensibly

Our modern lifestyles have made us quite dependent on what we call 'fast food'. This food can be very unhealthy, because of its ingredients and the way it is prepared. It usually has far too much sugar, is highly processed, and contains chemicals that we would prefer to not have in our food. Instead of eating a takeaway, follow a sensible diet of basic fresh food, including plenty of fruit and vegetables. Try to avoid too much sugar and artificial ingredients.

So remember: You can reduce your risk of cancer

As you can now see, although cancer is one of the scariest diseases, we can do a lot to reduce our risk and ensure that we live long, healthy lives. As long as we follow these really simple guidelines for living, we have a good chance of being cancer-free, and enjoying happier, healthier lives at the same time.  

With grateful thanks to the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) for sharing their cancer research with the Lenmed Health Group. Visit CANSA to learn how each of us has the power to take action for a cancer-free world. www.cansa.org.za

Disclaimer: Any information contained here is merely a guideline. Always visit your healthcare practitioner for any health-related advice or diagnosis.

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